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Prep ahead and freeze meals for quick weeknight cooking

Prep ahead and freeze meals for quick weeknight cooking

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Freezer meals can help you quickly pull together dinner on busy nights or on nights when you just don’t feel like cooking. There are a few approaches to prepping freezer meals. You can simply make a double batch of a recipe — one for dinner and one to freeze and reheat later. You can also prep and freeze ingredients to easily toss in your slow cooker or electric pressure cooker.

Freezer-safe containers

There are a variety of freezer-safe containers available today. Freezer-safe plastic bags are a popular option, as are single use foil baking dishes. However, if you prefer reusable containers, freezer-safe glass baking dishes and mason jars are good options as are a multitude of plastic containers. You may also opt for silicone containers that mimic plastic bags or glass jars.

Aluminum foil and wax paper are good items to have on hand as is plastic wrap. While these are not best for final freezer packaging, they are good layers to add under lids and seals. Each may also be used to wrap individual items like grilled chicken breasts before placing them into larger freezer-safe containers. Baking dishes should have lids and bags and jars should seal tightly.

Budget will undoubtedly play a role in your choice, so use what is comfortable for your lifestyle. The main idea is to remove as much air as possible before freezing and have containers that will hold up to the frigid temperature while keeping the quality of the food intact.

Remember to label each of your containers. A permanent marker works well on plastic bags and foil directly. Freezer labels or masking tape can be used on glass containers. Label with the item or meal, number of servings or amount, date it was prepared, and cooking instructions. Use a “first in, first out” method of storage so you use older meals (first in) before your newer.

Freezing and thawing safely

Preparing food for freezing is a two-step process. Cool any cooked food to room temperature, then refrigerate. Foods should be cooled completely before packaging for the freezer or placing them in the freezer (like pre-baked casseroles). Placing hot foods directly in the freezer could heat your freezer or the foods nearby which is not an ideal situation for food safety.

Lay freezer bags flat and stack them according to meal or ingredients — organization is key. Jars can be stored in the door of your freezer or kept on a single shelf of an upright freezer. Containers should be stacked, but make sure you keep like containers together — don’t stack a glass casserole dish on top of an aluminum one or you may crush part of your hard work!

The safest way to thaw ingredients is overnight in your refrigerator. In some cases, frozen ingredients like vegetables and small cuts of meat can be cooked in your pressure cooker. This will extend the cooking time slightly, so plan accordingly. If you are using a slow cooker, thaw food completely prior to cooking. The slow cooker will not reach a food-safe temperature fast enough to thaw and cook your food.

If you need a quick-thaw method, the microwave is okay for small amounts of food. Defrost your food and cook it immediately. The microwave will bring food to a temperature that encourages bacterial growth. This means you need to cook right away to kill any bacteria that may have developed and prevent further bacteria growth.

There are many cookbooks and recipes online to help you plan and prep freezer meals. Lasagna is a mainstay freezer meal and is simple to prepare in large or small quantities. Leftover baked lasagna can also be separated into single servings and frozen for later use. This will help you get started down the freezer meal road and you may find preparing double or triple batches of some meals an easy way to save time later.

For more information, the FDA has a great chart on refrigerator and freezer storage at

fda.gov/media/74435/download.

Niki Davis is a hospitality professor, the creator of Rooted in Foods food heritage blog and a regular contributor to The Southern Illinoisan's weekly Taste section. You can find her at www.rootedinfoods.com.

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